Skip to content

Research Hub Logo

Supporting non-specialist teachers: The importance of professional identity

Written By: Victoria Cook
3 min read

This research review was produced as part of a project funded by The Comino Foundation.


In many countries including England, Australia and Germany, the secondary school curriculum has traditionally been carved up into subjects delineated by their knowledge, modes of inquiry and discursive practices. In turn, this has implications for the notion of ‘subject teacher’, as expertise is situated within a field (Crisan and Hobbs, 2019). A teacher may be positioned as ‘out-of-field’ when they are teaching a subject outside their area of specialisation, which may be due to a mismatch between teacher supply and demand (Sani and Burghes, 2022) or alternative models of curricular and pedagogical design that remove subject boundaries and prioritise interdisciplinary approaches (Crisan and Hobbs, 2019). Teaching out-of-field, or outside specialism, is a common practice in secondary schools in many countries (Vale, Hobbs and Speldewinde, 2022).

Subjects and professional identity

Subjects provide meaningful focal points around which teachers develop a sense of professional identity (Hobbs, 2012; Siskin, 1994; van Manen, 1982). Luehmann (2007, p. 827) defines teacher professional identity as ‘how one is recognised by self or others as a certain kind of teacher’. Siskin (1994) argues that secondary school teachers tend to describe themselves in terms of subjects that they teach, having developed a set of values, norms and viewpoints that are reflective of the subject culture. The subject culture also governs both what should be taught and how it should be taught (Ball and Lacey, 1980). Crican and Hobbs (2019) argue that the assumption that disciplinary training alone for those teaching out-of-field automatically leads to effective teaching is flawed. Whilst over time, enculturation into the disciplinary practices and subject culture of out-of-field teachers is possible, there are many challenges that teachers may face as they learn to teach a new subject effectively and broaden their professional identity. 

Supporting identity transformation

Mizzi (2022) conducted a qualitative case study to investigate how a group of science teachers in Malta approached the teaching of chemistry as their non-specialist area. In Malta, science teachers usually have a teaching degree specialising in one science area (either physics, chemistry or biology), but they are required to teach all science areas at lower secondary school (11-13 years). The research was carried out with eight non-specialist chemistry teachers who participated in a year-long professional development programme to improve the teaching of chemistry. When facing challenges with planning and teaching chemistry topics, teachers were found to switch between different enabling mechanisms that developed their feelings of competence in their non-specialist area (such as conducting research prior to lessons and learning from colleagues) and coping strategies (such as following prescribed material and using more didactic methods of teaching to reduce opportunity for discussion). The findings suggest that teachers’ knowledge base and teaching experience determined the type of mechanisms employed, with early career teachers and those who had never studied chemistry at secondary level resorting to using coping strategies despite also investing time in research to learn more about the subject. However, Mizzi also concluded that the use of enabling mechanisms alone was not sufficient for subject specialists to expand their professional identity and view themselves as generalist science teachers, because identity transformation from specialist to generalist is a very slow process. Mizzi therefore recommends that communities of learners are formed within schools to promote ongoing professional dialogue with colleagues from different specialisms and support teacher identity transformation over the longer term. 

These findings are supported by another study of 22 out-of-field science teachers in Australia who were found to revert to traditional ways of teaching, which starkly contrasted with the range of teaching approaches used in their in-field discipline areas (Campbell, Vale and Speldewinde, 2023). However, in-school support structures were found to be influential in helping one teacher collaborate with a science colleague to develop a more constructivist approach to the design of a course of work. The importance of ongoing collaborative support is further highlighted by a four-year longitudinal study of eight teachers who completed a part-time maths retraining course England (Sani and Burghes, 2022). The study found that participants’ confidence and self-efficacy decreased over time following completion of the course in the absence of ongoing support. Whilst professional development programmes are an important part of upskilling out-of-field teachers (Goos et al., 2023), school culture is equally important to support the professional learning of those who are teaching out-of-field (Hobbs, 2013; Hobbs et al., 2022). The provision of ongoing collaborative support underpinned by professional dialogue is vital if out-of-field teachers are to be enculturated into a new subject. Without such support, retraining courses are unlikely to have sustained long-term impact. 

Reflection questions

  • What in-school support structures could help colleagues teaching outside of their areas of specialism in your context?
  • How can a culture of professional dialogue be nurtured in your school?
  • Ball S and Lacey C (1980) Subject disciplines as the opportunity for group action: A measured critique of subject sub-cultures. In: Woods P (Ed) Teacher strategies: Explorations in the sociology of the school (pp. 149–177). London: Croom Helm.
  • Campbell C, Vale C and Speldewinde C (2023) Teaching science out-of-field: Beliefs and practices 4(2):133–148.
  • Crisan C and Hobbs L (2019) Subject-specific demands of teaching: Implications for out-of-field teachers. In: Hobbs L and Törner G (Ed) Examining the Phenomenon of “Teaching Out-of-Field”: International Perspectives on Teaching as a Non-Specialist (178–251) Cham, Switzerland: Springer. 
  • Goos M, Ríordáin MN, Faulkner F et al. (2023) Impact of a national professional development programme for out-of-field teachers of mathematics in Ireland. Irish Educational Studies 42(3): 401–421.
  • Hobbs L (2012) Examining the aesthetic dimensions of teaching: Relationships between teacher knowledge, identity and passion. Teaching and Teacher Education 28: 718–727.
  • Hobbs L (2013) Teaching 'out-of-field' as a boundary-crossing event: Factors shaping teacher identity. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 11: 271–297. 
  • Hobbs L, Campbell C, Delaney S et al. (2022) Defining Teaching Out-of-Field: An Imperative for Research, Policy and Practice. In: Hobbs L and Porsch R (Ed) Out-of-Field Teaching Across Teaching Disciplines and Contexts (pp. 23–48). Singapore: Springer. 
  • Luehmann AL (2007) Identity development as a lens to science teacher preparation. Science Education 91(5): 822–839.
  • Mizzi D (2022) Crossing Boundaries Revisited: Strategies used by science teachers when teaching outside specialism. Malta Review of Educational Research 16(1): 5–24.
  • Sani N and Burghes D (2022) Longitudinal study of ‘retraining’ non-maths specialist teachers to become capable, confident teachers of mathematics. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology 53(9): 2438–2464.
  • Siskin LS (1994) Realms Of Knowledge: Academic Departments In Secondary Schools. London: Routledge.
  • van Manen M (1982) Phenomenological Pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry 12(3): 283–299.
  • Vale C, Hobbs L and Speldewinde C (2022) Challenging the representations and assumptions of out-of-field teaching. In: Hobbs L and Porsch R (Ed) Out-of-Field Teaching Across Teaching Disciplines and Contexts (pp. 3–21). Singapore: Springer. 
0 0 votes
Please Rate this content
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Other content you may be interested in